Evelyn and the Earthquakes

Hi, my name is Evelyn. I am sure that only a small percentage of Skepchick readers know me. This is because my last post was on August 3rd, 2009… about seven months ago. Those of you who have heard of me before probably know me more from my random appearances at Rebecca-organized parties than from my posts here. I am a truly abysmal Skepchick blogger, at least in terms of frequency of posting. During my first year of graduate school (before the insanity of general exams and thesis proposals and such), I posted regularly. During years two and three of graduate school, I posted sporadically. I have yet to post as a (gulp) fourth year graduate student. A couple of recent happenings have made me think again about posting on Skepchick. First, I had a conversation with my good friend Rebecca, who inspired me to post again. Second, there have been two exciting large earthquakes! There is much to post about.

In defense of my lack of posting, I am a geologist. And, geologically speaking, my last post was only an instant ago. The Earth is ~4.5 billion years old. I’m a scientist, so what the heck let’s do some quick math:

4.5 billion years * (10^9 years / 1 billion years) * (12 months / year) = 54000000000 months.

That’s a lot of months. In geologic time, 7 months is hardly significant- it’s an instant really!

7 months / 54000000000 months = 0.00000000013 or 0.000000013%

To put this in terms we short-lived humans can understand, if all of geologic time were a day (24 hours), my last post would have been a mere 0.0000112 seconds ago. Hardly a long time, right? Even if I were to not post for 7 years or 7 million years, this would hardly represent a significant amount of the vast expanses of geologic time. By the way, never loan a geologist money. Just in case they intend to pay you back “right away” on a geologic timescale.

Flimsy geologically-themed excuses aside, I suppose that most of you have no clue who I am, so I should briefly introduce myself.

Hi, my name is Evelyn. I am lucky enough to be friends with Rebecca, one of the coolest chicks I know. I like rocks. I’ve always liked rocks, ever since I was a child. To the surprise and delight of my worried parents, I have managed to find people who are willing to pay me to play with rocks. Cool, huh? I think so. I just have a graduate student stipend, but it pays the bills. I am also fortunate in that my research requires me to travel to some exciting places- places I would never be able to visit on my own dime. I will graduate (hopefully) sometime in the next year or two. I then plan to take some time off, travel, perhaps write a book about surviving differential equations at MIT (a life-changing experience, let me tell you!), and then maybe get a real job once I’m bored of sitting on the beach and using my brain as little as possible. Or maybe I’ll skip getting a real job and return to the magical bubble of academic research- I haven’t decided yet. What I do know for sure is that I intend to continue my scam of being paid to play with rocks and travel. It’s a great life.

Okay, now that I’ve re-introduced myself to Skepchick readers, I’d like to talk a little about the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. I am a geochemist, not a geophysicist- so I am not an expert on earthquakes. Regardless, I’ve been following the two recent quakes with interest.

When I heard about the recent quakes, I am sad to say that I reacted in approximately the following manner:

“There was a what magnitude earthquake? Cool! Why was there such a large earthquake there? What plates were moving? How much slip was there? How much energy was released? Where was the epicenter? How frequently do earthquakes like these occur? What effect did this earthquake have on the moving plates? Where else might we have an earthquake like this? Oh, and how many people died and buildings were destroyed?”

I suppose I might have reacted differently had I been living in Port-au-Prince or Santiago. I am actually ashamed of the way I react to geologic disasters (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, mudslides, floods, etc.)- I love these events. They fascinate me, and I want to know all about why they occur. I am excited and happy when geologic disasters occur. I even have an extensive collection of geology disaster movies, which I watch with morbid glee. Usually, when I hear about a geologic disaster, it takes me a few minutes to consider the effect of the grand geologic event on the people and places involved. After awhile, I do remember and am sad that destruction and death has occurred as a result of geology. I find these disasters humbling- Planet Earth really is in charge with her tectonic network of sliding, squishing, slipping, subducting plates. However, I suppose the more we learn about Planet Earth, her plates, and her geologic disasters, the more we can do to prevent people and buildings from being destroyed as a result of them. So I suppose I shouldn’t feel *too* guilty about being excited and fascinated by the geology of geologic disaster.

If you, too, are curious about the recent earthquakes, I recommend these two popular science articles. They are both good reads!

Why Haiti’s Quake Toll Higher than Chile’s

What 1835 Chile Quake Taught Darwin

Okay, back to my thesis now. I’ll post again soon (hopefully I mean “soon” on the human timescale, not the geologic timescale… time will tell!).


Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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  1. Great links! Welcome back. You are being all responsible by working on your thesis and not blogging as much as you’d like ;-)

    Also, for the first few months I was a 4th year, I refused to even acknowledge that I was a 4th year. So your *gulp* is seconded. (I feel slightly better as a 5th year though, weird.)

  2. Evelyn… you realize you are one of the few people in the world who can say you weren’t posting because you were ACTUALLY fighting pirates… and instead you blamed homework.

    Also, you forgot to mention the devastating earthquake that hit Chicagoland a few weeks ago. You don’t even realize that like 3 people were late to work because their cell phones fell behind their dressers so they didn’t hear the phones’ alarms go off that morning. IT WAS CHAOS! WE ALMOST DIED! Why is no one still talking about this?

  3. @Elyse: They must be blocking the memory of that terrible, terrible tragedy.

    Evelyn, welcome back. Keep on rockin’!

  4. To all Skepchick fans who have Facebook accounts, you are welcome to join and take part in a group that deals with all kinds of science:
    Universal Science Forum
    I especially want actual scientists like Evelyn and Nicole to enhance the group’s credibility!

  5. Hello from another Geologist Chick! I laughed out loud at your comment on diff. equations. At my college it was a tradition for the geology majors to fail that class at least once but at MIT? Hats off to you lady! As for being excited about natual disasters, everytime my sister in LA calls to tell me about another earthquake I am soooooo jealous and force her, a photo editor, to try to explain the motions to me through her tears. When I hear about an earthquake my imagination goes straight under the ground, to where the action is and then I manage to climb back up to where the people and structures are on the surface. Too bad they dont all happen in uninhabitied areas,eh? Good luck with school and believe it or not, in this economy, there are still lots of jobs out there for Lithobabes.

  6. As the possessor of a BS in Geology, I just wanted to reassure you I have the same reaction to natural disasters.

    It’s just shameful, aint’ it.

  7. Evy, might you be posting again “now” or “just now?” “Now now” is probably too much to ask, I’m sure…

  8. @Sean:

    No, you’re not wrong.

    It’s probably a CSS issue. The picture posted is simply too large for the center content column. In IE, it’s cut off, in Firefox and other browsers, the boxes are floating…

  9. OK geologist chicks, what do you think of the USGS shakemap data on the Chilean quake? Don’t the ground accelerations/velocities seem pretty low? I think the 1994 Northridge (a 6.7 quake) numbers are higher. I wonder if Haiti’s numbers were higher too. It is hard to tell as it doesn’t seem to have been well-instrumented (no surprise). It looks like a tall building would have done very well in the Chilean quake. Just our luck, here in LA even our earthquakes are shallow.

  10. Hi Evelyn!

    It’s great to see a Skepchick blogger in the geosciences! As a geoscience student myself, I find it hard to find other really good bloggers in this field. Hope you can post more in the future!

  11. @FlameTest:

    Thanks. I’m gonna have that nightmare I failed geophysics again.

    Seriously – I don’t know crap-all about Chilean geology, so this geo-chick is gonna abstain…

  12. Geologists are a bit weird when it comes to natural disasters, aren’t they? As a geologist and Washington native (the STATE, to you east-coasters; not that other damnable place), I keep seeing views of our massive volcanoes and secretly wishing “do it! do it now!” Mean, I know… but I had Mt. St. Helens ash landing on my house when I was 13 and actually seeing the eruption in person would be *so cool*!

  13. Sorry. I didn’t mean to give you nightmares, I was only trying to be a good skeptic while attempting to calm my own bad dreams. As a structural engineer, I desperately want to believe those low ground accelerations but the data is direct from the instrumentation. I know enough to know that being good at one science doesn’t qualify me to make judgments on another. There is a lot of noise in the press at this point about “why this can’t happen here” but I was wondering if maybe that wasn’t the real point. Maybe it already has. Every quake is a chance to learn something new. I am always impatient to find out what. Oh well. I will probably still have the nightmares anyway.

    Geology is a big field. Maybe I should have addressed the question to geophysicist chicks.

  14. @Evelyn

    Your enthusiasm is so contagious, I’m thinking of buying a few books on rocks and geology this weekend. Thank you Evelyn, for giving me yet another reason to buy books. ;D My boyfriend will be so happy (our library is… overflowing a bit).

  15. I heard a while ago about a girl who grew up normally until about 18 months and then just stopped there, both mentally and physically, and is now about 16 or 17 years old.

    My first reaction was “wow, think of the science!” followed by “wow, how cute!” followed by “wow, how horrible” followed by “wow, I’m confused.”

    A friend of mine who was a volunteer paramedic described himself and another paramedic covering some event and watching a drunk man staggering down some stairs. The other paramedic was muttering under their breath “I’m *bored*. Come on, fall down and break something!”

    I also have some comments on the topic of your geological timescale, and scaling time to a 24 hour period. First, I have a background in astronomy, so I think your scaling should be the total life of the Earth: midnight should be 5+ billion years from now, when the Earth gets baked (possibly engulfed) by our sun as a red giant.

    Secondly, although you didn’t do this, it really bugs me when museums etc. label the geological periods “The Age of Bacteria”, “The Age of Fish”, “The Age of Amphibians”, “The Age of Dinosaurs”, “The Age of Mammals”. Just because fish, amphibia, dinosaurs and mammals are big and related to us, doesn’t mean they’re the most important. The dominant life forms on this planet are still bacteria. We are still in The Age of Bacteria, and we will be until the planet bakes.

    Finally, returning to the 24 hour history of life on earth, we see life started perhaps 3.5 billion years ago, and will continue perhaps 5 billion more years, putting us at roughly 10am. The entire period is the Age of Bacteria.

    Cue music for “The Age of Aquarius”

    This is mid morning of the Age of Bacteria
    The Age of Bactera

  16. Geologists who marry other geologists are constantly asking each other : Did the earth move for you, Did the earth move for you?

  17. @Filias Cupio: That is by far one of the most difficult things to teach new clinicians: to hold in the wonder or “that’s so cool” when examining patients. I have had more than a few patients get (understandably) really pissed at this sort of thing.

  18. @FiliasCupio: Thanks for your comments! Call the ages of the geologic timescale whatever you want. In my opinion, this life stuff (bacteria included) just gets in the way of all the pretty rocks.

  19. @Evelyn:
    And the atmosphere just gets in the way of all the pretty stars and galaxies – we should get rid of it.

    Maybe you can correct me on this, but is it not the case that prior to the advent of radio isotope dating, Geology would have made very little progress without fossils to allow them to date strata?

  20. I too have a morbid fascination with disasters, which do make me feel bad sometimes. I remember in 2005 when there were over 20 tropical cyclones in the Atlantic. I was like, “wow, cool”, but then I was like, “you idiot, people are dying!”

  21. @Flametest

    The “shake” maps are based on the Modified Mercalli earthquake scale which is totally independent of the Magnitude (Richter was a common one) scale. Magnitude comes mostly from the seismograph readings and is a measure of raw energy. The Mercalli readings aren’t based on instruments which is why they are a good indicator of what happened on the ground. People report what they experienced (the USGS maps have a “Did You Feel It” map where folks tell what it was like for them). They can also look at damage and changes in buildings and the Earth to see how the energy affected a region.

    A big factor in the Haiti versus Chile quakes were the depth (focus) of the earthquake where the energy was released. Haiti was much nearer the surface and released a lot more of the energy to the surroundings. In Chile, the shaking was much less – the tsunamis that happened soon afterward caused major damage in coastal areas.

    I think Chile is still going to have effects since there have been over 200 aftershocks, some of them as large as 5-6 magnitude.

    And @evelyn – Yay for the return of the geo-skepchick! :)

  22. @PopeCoyote: Thank you for the response. Obviously you have expertise and I appreciate your time. Also obviously, I didn’t do a good job framing my question. I am interested in the ground acceleration data (shown here). The isolines appear to be extrapolated from the instrument data without human input. I understand the warning in the small print. Just as in the “did you feel it” data, this is a measurement of surface activity but done by instruments.

    It is tempting to look at the performance of structures in that quake and think “8.8 – wow, the codes are doing a pretty good job. ” But the acceleration shakemap seems to be telling me that it really wasn’t much of a test. Am I being overly skeptical in thinking that?

  23. @FlameTest: I’m far from an expert, but I teach geology and chemistry and have some background. The instrumental intensities are apparently approximations but they agree pretty well with the intensities derived from effects in the quake area. I would agree with you, though, that the quake wasn’t much of a test of the building codes – it was a large magnitude quake but the energy was far from concentrated in any one area, unlike Haiti. If they had been, things would have been quite different.

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